Espy Pleads Not Guilty, Calls Probe 'Unfair'
By Bill Miller
Former agriculture secretary Mike Espy pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges that he solicited more than $35,000 in gifts from companies he was supposed to be regulating. Afterward, he vowed to aggressively fight the charges and said, "I have faith and I know that I will prevail."
"I have always believed it is not what they call you but what you answer to," Espy said. "This afternoon, I have answered not guilty because indeed I am not guilty. I have read the indictment and I know it is wrong."
The remarks were Espy's first public statements since his indictment last month on 39 felony counts. He gave no details but said his story will emerge when the case goes to trial next year in U.S. District Court here.
Espy, 43, who served as agriculture secretary from January 1993 until December 1994, is now practicing law in Jackson, Miss. Yesterday Judge Ricardo M. Urbina permitted him to remain free on personal recognizance.
Espy quietly scribbled notes and drafted a version of his public remarks while awaiting the start of yesterday's proceedings. Then, flanked by attorneys Reid H. Weingarten and Ted Wells, he stood before the judge and said in a loud, clear voice: "May it please the court, I am not guilty."
The indictment, which capped a three-year investigation led by independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz, accuses Espy of mail and wire fraud and lying to the Agriculture Department's inspector general, the FBI and White House when questioned about his activities. Espy also is accused of illegally accepting gratuities for himself, his girlfriend and relatives. Prosecutors allege the gifts included luggage, crystal bowls and tickets to sporting events, and say Espy failed to report the items on federal financial disclosure forms.
Espy blamed his legal problems on Smaltz, who he said had conducted "an unfair and unprecedented investigation." He said he had drawn support from friends in Mississippi and added, "I need their help now more than ever."
Smaltz was in court yesterday but declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss the case while the charges are pending. So far, his wide-ranging investigation has led to convictions against three corporations and four individuals. More than $4.5 million in criminal fines and civil settlements have been agreed to by various companies.
Espy, a former Democratic congressman from Mississippi, noted that the indictment does not accuse him of granting any favors. However, he is accused of accepting them from numerous companies, including Sun-Diamond Growers of California, Tyson Foods Inc. of Arkansas and Quaker Oats Co. of Chicago.
His former chief of staff, Ronald Blackley, also is awaiting trial. Blackley is accused of hiding about $22,000 in fees he received from farmers while working for Espy. Blackley, who has denied wrongdoing, also made a court appearance yesterday. Judge Royce C. Lamberth set his trial date for Oct. 29.
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